What is interoception?
Interoception is one of the eight senses that is missed out of the classic list of five senses. Therefore most of us have never heard of it and have no idea what it does. Interoception is the awareness of our internal bodily systems.
Unlike most of the senses interoception relates to the perception of stimuli originating inside the body. Whilst the person sitting next to you is experiencing very similar levels of light and sound, they may have different level of hunger, heart or respiratory rate.
Regulation of our senses is one aspect of our basic human needs.
What's going on inside?
Interoception and regulation
|Cardiac||Feeling our heartbeat, messages from our blood
|Respiratory||Feeling our breathing rate and depth
|Gastrointestinal||Feeling hunger, satiation, digestive sensations
|Pain||Registering of injury or malfunction in the body
|Immunity||Sends messages to the brain to influence other systems
|Hormones||Not only responds to the brain, but also sends messages
|Thermoregulation||Provides information about internal body temperature
As you can see some of these interoceptive areas require us to act to regulate them.
If we are hungry, we need to eat, and if we are eating, and are full (satiated) then we need to stop eating. If we are too hot, we may need to move away from the fire, move into the shade, or remove a layer of clothing.
We regulate our bodies by responding to our interoceptive signals.
Interoception: overriding our cues
As adults in our society we override and ignore our interoceptive cues a lot. Do you ever eat when you are not hungry because it is a meal time, or avoid eating when you are hungry because it isn’t lunch time yet?
What about going to the toilet? Have you ever felt the need to go for a wee, and put it off, and then found that the urge has passed? This is because putting off weeing or pooing stops the nerve signals from signalling, making us less aware of our body’s needs. If you’re a teacher, nurse, midwife, shop worker, parent or one of many other roles then chances are you have put off using the toilet until later, often much later. We train ourselves out of recognising and responding to our body’s interoceptive cues.
Sleep is another good example. When was the last time you allowed yourself to go to sleep as it got dark, and your body starts to feel sleepy? For most adults the answer is years ago! For half of the year many of us are still at work when it gets dark in artificially lit environments. Going to bed when the light levels dim and our body produces melatonin is totally impractical in our society. We override our interoception all the time.
Activity: Checking in
Interoception helps tell us what our body needs us to do for optimal functioning. Whether it is resting, eating, going to the toilet, managing and wound or illness that is causing pain, interoception gives us vital information. Given that we override our interoception so often it can be helpful to practice checking in with your body.
Notice your breathing. Is it rapid? Shallow? Deep? Slow?
Pay attention to your hunger or thirst? Do you need a drink?
Are you a comfortable temperature? Is your body able to keep you warm or cool enough. or do you need to change something?
Do you need to use the toilet?
Do you feel rested? Are you tired?
Can you act on any of these sensations to help your body to be well regulated?
Everyone has their own unique level of awareness of sensory input. For example, some people are aware of the feeling of every seam and label in their clothing, whether it bothers them or not, whilst others cannot even feel them when they are thinking about it. Some people hear and notice noises that to others fade into background noise. They may be surprised to hear that the noise of a computer’s fan could be distracting.
Communicating about interoception
When the senses are picking up stimuli in the world around us we can usually communicate them effectively, even to someone with a different level of sensory awareness. As parents we talk to our children about what they can see, and what they can hear. We talk about whether things feel rough or smooth, how foods taste, and what we can smell. However, it is harder to talk to children about interoception. Our interoceptive sensations and their sensations may be very different.
Our child may feel full, whilst we still feel a need to keep eating. This makes it tricky to point out and name the sensation they are experiencing. It is helpful to try though. When a child stops eating, ask if they are finished? Do they feel full? When you feel thirsty, you can say, ‘I feel thirsty, I need a drink.’ You can talk about how you feel better when you have had a drink. Naming sensations gives children the tools they need to communicate about interoception. This helps them become more able to recognise, express and meet their own needs.
Interoception and learning processes: toileting
One of the key areas that we can see interoception is heavily involved in learning is in the process of toilet learning. As babies urination and defecation (weeing and pooing) are controlled by reflexes which cause urinary or anal sphincters to relax. As we get older we begin to notice the sensations of passing urine, or pooing as they happen. After a little more time we become aware of the sensations we have just before we wee or poo. These are stages in the development of interoceptive awareness.
We also begin to realise that we have some level of control over whether we relax those sphincters to release the wee or poo. This takes time to recognise, and yet more time to be able to reliably control the sphincters and get themselves to a potty or toilet.
A huge amount of the learning process, and a part that cannot be rushed or skipped, is the development of interoceptive awareness as it relates to urge to wee or poo. Nappy free time can help with making connection between feelings and results. When a toddler notices they are weeing in the bath, the surprise often causes the sphincter to tense again, briefly stopping the flow. Recognising the sensation of relaxation and weeing, and the tensing and the flow stopping can help them make connections between interoception and effects. When they can see wee coming out, children often begin to experiment with stopping the flow. This is learning, and it is tricky to teach them this in any other way.
This can be especially helpful to do when feeling on edge, or disregulated. Consider the other senses too. Is the environment too bright or dim, is there a distressing or distracting noise?
Help your child learn to check in with their body and respond to their needs too. This will help them recognise the importance of interoception, and use it to keep themselves well regulated.